The Case for Artists’ Basic Income

Marinus van Reymerswaele, ‘The Money Changers’, detail, c.1548. Public domain.

If the pandemic has been a period of ‘global humbling’, one limited effect – let’s risk an optimistic view – might be political openness to new ideas

Against the odds: some good news. From spring 2022, Ireland will pilot a ‘basic income’ plan for artists, offering weekly, no-strings pay-packets to painters, actors, poets, musicians and anyone else courageous enough for the stop-start, up-down struggle of artistic self-employment. To begin with, a sizeable cohort of 2000 artists will be supported. Criteria for inclusion are not yet clear, though means-testing is out, and random selection may well be the preferred approach – each golden-ticket winner receiving the same, standard subsidy of €325 per week, a financial arrangement that will last, in the first instance, for three years. This ‘basic income’ figure is certainly basic – close to Ireland’s minimum wage. But, in principle at least, the continuing, unthreatened reliability of these weekly deposits is the venture’s salient virtue. Whatever happens during this trial period – failed applications, disastrous auditions, loss-making commissions, sudden evictions – the cheques keep on coming.

In the grand, global scheme of things, all this might be, perhaps, no big deal. Basic income initiatives, even those targeted at artists, are not new – and recent experiments with the concept have delivered mixed results, if they have delivered at all. A 2017-2018 programme in Finland, embracing diverse representation from the general population, prompted largely positive responses from its 2000-strong test-group. (Many participants spoke of improved proximity to that most prized and elusive of contemporary conditions: ‘wellbeing’). A Canadian version, the Ontario Basic Income Pilot Project, began brightly as an ambitious three-year study in 2017, only for the plug to be pulled ten months later as the Ontario Liberals were bumped from power by the Progressive Conservative party. More precisely relevant to Ireland’s arts-centred pitch might be longue durée lessons from the ‘intermittents du spectacle’: a dedicated unemployment fund for performing artists and associated technical crews that has been available in France (in one form or another) since 1936.  This state system of there-when-you-need-it support has served as an essential buoyancy aid for French artists – to muddle the metaphor, it is intended to keep cultural workers afloat during dry periods – but its significance has inevitably increased with one pandemic wave after another.  Intended as occasional back-up, the scheme has accrued value and meaning in times of recurring, comprehensive lockdowns. 

This is, then, where the Irish plan comes in. The Basic Income for the Arts proposition emerges in our current moment of enforced critical reflection – with the medical meaning of ‘critical’ never far from our minds. More specifically, the case for artists to receive a basic income has been recently and convincingly made by Ireland’s ‘Arts and Culture Recovery Taskforce’: a government-led working group charged with assessing and addressing post-pandemic cultural damage (their brief and acronym surely calls for the accompanying slogan ‘A.R.T. for art’s sake’). Reporting on the extraordinary pressures felt by Ireland’s artists and arts organisations since COVID-19’s shocking first act in spring 2020, the committee stressed a straightforward principle: that of aspiring towards ‘life worth living’, whether as a sine qua non of artistic vocations, or as an understanding of art’s consequential importance to everyday life more generally. Unsurprisingly, their proposed means to that end was the provision of sufficient financial means – with a basic income pilot as the lead recommendation. Surprisingly, the government agreed.

If, as Zadie Smith has put it, the pandemic has been a period of ‘global humbling’, one limited effect – let’s risk an optimistic view – might be political openness to new ideas, and readiness to rethink some basics. Ireland’s Basic Income for the Arts is a bold move in this regard: potentially leading – who knows? – to Basic Income for All. (Why, indeed, should we stop at artists?) Yet in rolling out the plan, it would be impressive if its measures of success were defined in basic terms too: avoiding, in particular, any imperative to quantify levels of artistic productivity. Basic income can bring genuine benefits to the lives of artists – most of all, maybe, by taking pressure off, rather than presuming a need to be active. As the psychoanalyst Josh Cohen writes in his book Not Working: Why We Have to Stop (2019), the ‘perpetual busyness’ of present-day existence is ‘fuelled by a culture that derides or trivializes the need to stop’; at the same time, he says, ‘the very fact that art exists attests to a dimension of us that rejects active, purposeful life, what we might call the tyranny of doing.’  A basic income might yet provide a platform for relatively hassle-free artistic endeavour – getting things done in your own time, thinking things through at your own pace – but it ought also to allow for a good degree of legitimate idleness. What is ‘recovery’ after all, without a serious commitment to rest?

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